A disturbingly large portion of the United States’ extensive commuter and freight rail system lacks crucial Positive Train Control technology designed to avert deadly high-speed accidents. Even with the recent extension of Congress’ implementation deadline from Dec. 31, 2015 to the end of 2018, the U.S. rail industry is scrambling to develop and install the safety systems before another crash occurs.
Positive Train Control, or PTC, is a safety system intended to prevent train collisions and derailments by automatically slowing locomotives traveling at excessive rates of speed. Congress formally ordered the rail industry to implement PTC in 2008 after a deadly head-on collision between two trains in California killed 25 and left more than 100 injured.
Public calls for PTC gained momentum in May 2015 after the National Transportation Safety Board said the system could have prevented an Amtrak train derailment that killed eight passengers near Philadelphia. The NTSB has placed nationwide installation of PTC at the top of its 2016 “Most Wanted” list of transportation safety improvements.
U.S. rail operators have fallen woefully short of Congress’ lofty goals for the implementation of PTC, despite spending billions of dollars to address the issue. As of Dec. 31, 2015, a mere 14% of the more than 60,000 route miles targeted under the federal government’s original mandate were PTC-enabled, according to the American Association of Railroads, a national trade organization. Just 31% percent of 22,066 locomotives had the necessary equipment, while just 27% of the 114,515 employees were sufficiently PTC-trained.
Over the last 46 years, the National Transportation Safety Board estimates PTC technology could have prevented 145 railroad accidents, saved an estimated 300 lives and averted more than 6,700 injuries to passengers. Without PTC in place, critics warn that the U.S. transportation system is at great risk for a deadly passenger train crash or freight rail oil spill.
“Every PTC-preventable accident, death and injury on tracks and trains affected by the law will be a direct result of the missed 2015 deadline and the delayed implementation of this life-saving technology,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said earlier this month in a press release.
As public concern about the safety of America’s railroads has increased, federal authorities have stepped up efforts to sanction operators for violations. The Federal Railroad Administration identified 6,485 safety infractions and collected $15 million in fines through the end of its 2015 fiscal year last September, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Late last year, several major railroads threatened a service shutdown if Congress would not extend its original PTC deadline. An FRA report released in August found that most passenger and freight operators would not be able to meet the deadline. Eventually, Congress bowed to the pressure, voting in October to extend the PTC deadline to 2018.
Under the revised mandate, rail operators can also be granted an additional two years to complete final testing of their systems, provided they meet certain baseline standards for infrastructure installation by 2018. FRA officials warn there’s no guarantee that every rail company will be eligible for the extension.
“Positive Train Control prevents accidents and saves lives. That’s why the Federal Railroad Administration has supported its implementation for many years. And it is why FRA is disappointed that most railroads would have missed the original year-end deadline that Congress established,” FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said in a statement to FOXBusiness.com. “The new deadline—three years from now—should be viewed as the absolute last moment for Positive Train Control to be activated. Railroads should make it their goal to beat the deadline by as much as possible, and as safely and efficiently as possible.”
Rail industry executives and lobbyists warned Congress for years that the December 2015 deadline was unrealistic. PTC systems had to “developed from scratch” by each company, said AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg. The freight rail industry has already spent more than $6 billion on PTC, with final costs expected to be in the $9 billion to $10 billion range.
Even with that spending, the rail industry struggled to develop systems that can successfully carry out their function during testing, let alone in real-world situations. Operators are still seeing failure rates of up to 40% while testing PTC in labs and designated areas of track.
“Positive Train Control is a complex, step-by-step process, both in terms of safety engineering and implementation,” Greenberg said. “And then you add in the magnitude of installing and implementing a brand-new technology across about 60,000 route miles of track and ensuring that it’s not only fully operational but interoperable between a number of different rail systems. The challenge has been extreme.”
Commuter rail company Amtrak has spent more than $110 million on Positive Train Control since 2000, company spokesman Craig Schulz told FOXBusiness.com. As of December 2015, PTC technology was enabled on 393 of 400 Amtrak-owned route miles in the Northeast Corridor. Moreover, the life-saving technology has been implemented on about 237 route miles since the May 12 derailment outside Philadelphia.
“We had always intended to and planned to meet that original federal deadline,” Schulz said. “That was always our goal and we were absolutely committed to that and on schedule for that.”
Leading freight operator CSX (NASDAQ:CSX) expects to complete installation of necessary PTC gear on its 21,000 miles of track and 3,900 locomotives before the 2018 federal deadline, though the system won’t be “fully operational” until 2020, according to CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle. CSX spent $1.5 billion on PTC through the end of 2015 and plans to spend an additional $700 million through 2020.
“Safety is CSX’s highest priority, and CSX is fully committed to deploying an interoperable Positive Train Control (PTC) system on the affected areas of our network as soon as we can safely do so,” Doolittle said.
The AAR stressed that U.S. trains have various safety measures in place to prevent accidents, and that PTC is overlay system meant to avert disaster if all other protocols fail. The industry is committed to having PTC fully operational across all 60,000 route miles by 2020.
“It’s our position that safety can’t be rushed,” Greenberg said.